Vygotsky. The Historical Meaning of The Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation
We proceed to the positive formulations. From the fragmentary analyses of the
separate elements of a science we have learned to view it as a complex whole
which develops dynamically and lawfully. In which stage of development is our
science at this moment, what is the meaning and nature of the crisis it experiences
and what will be its outcome? Let us proceed to the answer to these questions.
When one is somewhat acquainted with the methodology (and history) of the sciences,
science loses its image of a dead, finished, immobile whole consisting of ready-made
statements and becomes a living system which constantly develops and moves forward,
and which consists of proven facts, laws, suppositions, structures, and conclusions
which are continually being supplemented, criticized, verified, partially rejected,
interpreted and organized anew, etc. Science commences to be understood dialectically
in its movement, i.e., from the perspective of its dynamics, growth, development,
evolution. It is from this point of view that we must evaluate and interpret
each stage of development. Thus, the first thing from which we proceed is the
acknowledgement of a crisis. What this crisis signifies is the subject of different
interpretations. What follows are the most important kinds of interpretation
of its meaning.
First of all, there are psychologists who totally deny the existence of a crisis.
Chelpanov belongs among them, as do most of the Russian psychologists of the
old school in general (only Lange and Frank have seen what is being done in
science). In the opinion of such psychologists everything is all right in our
science, just as in mineralogy. The crisis came from outside. Some persons ventured
to reform our science; the official ideology required its revision. But for
neither was there any objective basis in the science itself. It is true, in
the debate one had to admit that a scientific reform was undertaken in America
as well, but for the reader it was carefully–and perhaps sincerely–concealed
that not a single psychologist who left his trace in science managed to avoid
the crisis. This first conception is so blind that it is of no further interest
to us. It can be fully explained by the fact that psychologists of this type
are essentially eclectics and popularizers of other persons’ ideas. Not
only have they never engaged in the research and philosophy of their science,
they have not even critically assessed each new school. They have accepted everything:
the WUrzburg school and Husserl’s phenomenology, Wundt’s and Titchener’s
experimentalism and Marxism, Spencer and Plato. When we deal with the great
revolutions that take place in science, such persons are outside of it not only
theoretically. In a practical sense as well they play no role whatever. The
empiricists betrayed empirical psychology while defending it. The eclectics
assimilated all they could from ideas that were hostile to them. The popularizers
can be enemies to no one, they will popularize the psychology that wins. Now
Chelpanov is publishing much about Marxism. Soon he will be studying reflexology,
and the first textbook of the victorious behaviorism will be compiled by him
or a student of his. On the whole they are professors and examiners, organizers
and “Kulturträger,” but not a single investigation of any importance
has emerged from their school.
Others see the crisis, but evaluate it very subjectively. The crisis has divided psychology into two camps. For them the borderline lies always between the author of a specific view and the rest of the world. But, according to Lotze, even a worm that is half crushed sets off its reflection against the whole world. This is the official viewpoint of militant behaviorism. Watson (1926) thinks that there are two psychologies: a correct one–his own–and an incorrect one. The old one will die of its halfheartedness. The biggest detail he sees is the existence of halfhearted psychologists. The medieval traditions with which Wundt did not want to break wined the psychology without a soul. As you see, everything is simplified to an extreme. There is no particular problem in turning psychology into a natural science. For Watson this coincides with the point of view of the ordinary person, i.e., the methodology of common sense. Bekhterev, on the whole, evaluates the epochs in psychology in the same way: everything before Bekbterev was a mistake, everything after Bekhterev is the truth. Many psychologists assess the crisis likewise. Since it is subjective, it is the easiest initial naive viewpoint. The psychologists whom we examined in the chapter on the unconscious  also reason this way: there is empirical psychology, which is permeated by metaphysical idealism–this is a remnant; and there is a genuine methodology of the era, which coincides with Marxism. Everything which is not the first must be the sec6nd, as no third possibility is given.
Psychoanalysis is in many respects the opposite of empirical psychology. This already suffices to declare it to be a Marxist system! For these psychologists the crisis coincides with the struggle they are fighting. There are allies and enemies, other distinctions do not exist.
The objective-empirical diagnoses of the crisis are no better: the severity
of the crisis is measured by the number of schools that can be counted. Allport,
in counting the currents of American psychology, defended this point of view
(counting schools): the school of James and the school of Titchener, behaviorism
and psychoanalysis. The units involved in the elaboration of the science are
enumerated side by side, but not a single attempt is made to penetrate into
the objective meaning of what each school is defending and the dynamic relations
between the schools.
The error becomes more serious when one begins to view this situation as a
fundamental characteristic of a crisis. Then the boundary between this crisis
and any other, between the crisis in psychology and any other science, between
every particular disagreement or debate and a crisis, is erased. In a word,
one uses an anti-historical and anti-methodological approach which usually leads
to absurd results.
Portugalov (1925, p. 12) wishes to argue the incomplete and relative nature
of rcflexology and not only slips into agnosticism and relativism of the purest
order, but ends up with obvious nonsense. “In the chemistry, mechanics,
electrophysics and electrophysiology of the brain everything is changing dramatically
and nothing has yet been clearly and definitely demonstrated.” Credulous
persons believe in natural science, but “when we stay in the realm of medicine,
do we really believe, with the hand on our heart, in the unshakable and stable
force of natural science . . .and does natural science itself . . .believe in
its unshakable, stable, and genuine character?”
There follows an enumeration of the theoretical changes in the natural sciences
which are, moreover, lumped together. A sign of equality is put between the
lack of solidity or stability of a particular theory and the whole of natural
science, and what constitutes the foundation of the truth of natural science–the
change of its theories and views–is passed off as the proof of its impotence.
That this is agnosticism is perfectly dear, but two aspects deserve to be mentioned
in connection with what follows: (1) in the whole chaos of views that serve
to picture the natural sciences as lacking a single firm point, it is only .
. . subjective child psychology based upon introspection which turns out to
be unshakable; (2) amidst all the sciences which demonstrate the unreliability
of the natural sciences, geometry is listed alongside optics and bacteriology.
It so happens that
Euclid said that the sum of the angles of a triangle equals two right angles; Labachevsky dethroned Euclid and demonstrated that the sum of the angles of a triangle is less than two right angles, and Riemann dethroned Lobachevsky and demonstrated that the sum of the angles of a triangle is more than two right angles (ibid., p. 13).
We will still have more than one occasion to meet the analogy between geometry
and psychology, and therefore it is worthwhile to memorize this model of a-methodological
thinking: (1) geometry is a natural science; (2) Linné, Cuvier, and Darwin
“dethroned” each other in the same way as Euclid, Lobachevsky, and
Riemann did; finally (3) Lobachevsky dethroned Euclid and demonstrated that...
. But even people with only elementary knowledge of the subject know that
here we are not dealing with the knowledge of real triangles, but with ideal
forms in mathematical, deductive systems, that these three theses follow from
three different assumptions and do not contradict each other, just like other
arithmetical counting systems do not contradict the decimal system. They co-exist
and this determines their whole meaning and methodological nature. But what
can be the value for the diagnosis of the crisis in an inductive science of
a viewpoint which regards each two consecutive names as a crisis and each new
opinion as a refutation of the truth?
Kornilov’s (1925) diagnosis is closer to the truth. He views a struggle
between two currents–reflexology and empirical psychology and their synthesis – Marxist
Already Frankfurt (1926) had advanced the opinion that reflexology cannot be viewed as a united whole, that it consists of contradictory tendencies and directions. This is even more true of empirical psychology. A unitary empirical psychology does not exist at all. In general, this simplified schema was created more as a program for operations, critical understanding, and demarcation than for an analysis of the crisis. For the latter it lacks reference to the causes, tendency, dynamics, and prognosis of the crisis. It is a logical classification of viewpoints present in the USSR and no more than that.
Thus, there has been no theoiy of the crisis in anything so far discussed, but only subjective communiqués compiled by the staffs of the quarreling parties. Here what is important is to beat the enemy; nobody will waste his time studying him.
Still closer to a theory of the crisis comes Lange (1914, p. 43), who already presents an embryonic description of it. But he has more feeling for than understanding of the crisis. Not even his historical information is to be trusted. For him the crisis commenced with the fall of associationism, i.e., he takes an accidental circumstance for the cause. Having established that “presently some general crisis is taking place” in psychology, he continues: “It consists of the replacement of the previous associationism by a new psychological theory.” This is incorrect if only because associationism never was a generally accepted psychological system which formed the core of our science, but to the present day remains one of the fighting currents which has become much stronger lately and has been revived in reflexology and behaviorism. The psychology of Mill, Bain, and Spencer was never more than what it is now. It has fought faculty psychology (Herbart) like it is doing now. To see the root of the crisis in associationism is to give a very subjective assessment. Lange himself views it as the root of the rejection of the sensualistic doctrine. But today as well Gestalt theory views associationism as the main flaw of all psychology, including the newest.
In reality, it is not the adherents and opponents of this principle who are divided by some basic trait, but groups that evolved upon much more fundamental grounds. Furthermore, it is not entirely correct to reduce it to a struggle between the views of individual psychologists: it is important to lay bare what is shared and what is contradictory behind these various opinions. Lange’s false understanding of the crisis ruined his own work. In defending the principle of a realistic, biological psychology, he fights Ribot and relies upon Husserl and other extreme idealists, who reject the possibility of psychology as a natural science. But some things, and not the least important ones, he established correctly. These are his correct propositions:
(1) There is no generally accepted system of our science. Each of the expositions
of psychology by eminent authors is based upon an entirely different system.
All basic concepts and categories are interpreted in various ways. The crisis
touches upon the very foundations of the science.
(2) The crisis is destructive, but wholesome. It reveals the growth of the
science, its enrichment, its force, not its impotence or bankruptcy. The serious
nature of the crisis is caused by the fact that the territory of psychology
lies between sociology and biology, between whith Kant wanted to divide it.
(3) Not a single psychological work is possible without first establishing the basic principles of this science. One should lay the foundations before starting to build.
(4) Finally, the common goal is to elaborate a new theory–a “renewed system of the science.”
However, Lange’s understanding of this goal is entirely incorrect. For him it is “the critical evaluation of all contemporary currents and the attempt to reconcile them” (Lange, 1914, p. 43). And he tried to reconcile what cannot be reconciled: Husserl and biological psychology; together with James he attacked Spencer and with Dilthey be renounced biology. For him the idea of a possible reconciliation followed from the idea that “a revolution took place” “against asso ciationism and physiological psychology” (ibid., p. 47) and that all new currents are connected by a common starting point and goal. That is why he gives a global characteristic of the crisis as an earthquake, a swampy area, etc. For him “a period of chaos has commenced” and the task is reduced to the “critique and logical elaboration” of the various opinions engendered by a common cause. This is a picture of the crisis as it was sketched by the participants in the struggle of the 1870s. Lange’s personal attempt is the best evidence for the struggle between the real operative forces which determine the crisis. He regards the combination of subjective and objective psychology as a necessary postulate of psychology, rather than as a topic of discussion and a problem. As a result he introduces this dualism into his whole system. By contrasting his realistic or biological understanding of the mind with Natorp’s  idealistic conception, he in fact accepts the existence of two psychologies, as we will see below.
But the most curious thing is that Ebbinghaus, whom Lange considers to be an associationist, i.e., a pre-critical psychologist, defines the crisis more correctly. In his opinion the relative imperfection of psychology is evident from the fact that the debates concerning almost all of the most general of its questions have never come to a halt. In other sciences there is unanimity about all the ultimate principles or the basic views which must be at the basis of investigation, and if a change takes place it does not have the character of a crisis. Agreement is soon reestablished. In psychology things are entirely different, in Ebbinghaus’ [1902, p. 9] opinion. Here these basic views are constantly subjected to vivid doubt, are constantly being contested.
Ebbinghaus considers the disagreement to be a chronic phenomenon. Psychology
lacks clear, reliable foundations. And in 1874 the same Brentano, with whose
name Lange would have the crisis start, demanded that instead of the many psychologies,
one psychology should be created. Obviously, already at that time there existed
not only many currents instead of a single system, but many psychologies. Today
as well this is a most accurate diagnosis of the crisis. Now, too, metbodologists
claim that we are at the same point as Brentano was [Binswanger, 1922, p. 6].
This means that what takes place in psychology is not a struggle of views which
may be reconciled and which are united by a common enemy and purpose. It is
not even a struggle between currents or directions within a single science,
but a struggle between different sciences. There arc many psychologies–this
means that it is different, mutually exclusive and really existing types of
science that are fighting. Psychoanalysis, intentional psychology,49 reflexology–all
these are different types of science, separate disciplines which tend to turn
into a general psychology, i.e., to the subordination and exclusion of the other
disciplines. We have seen both the meaning and the objective features of this
tendency toward a general science. There can be no bigger mistake than to take
this struggle for a struggle of views. Binswanger (1922, p. 6) begins by mentioning
Brentano’s demand and Windelband’s remark that with each representative
psychology begins anew. The cause of this he sees neither in a lack of factual
material, which has been gathered in abundance, nor in the absence of philosophical-methodological
principles, of which we also have enough, but in the lack of cooperation between
philosophers and empiricists in psychology: “There is hardly a single science
where theorists and practitioners took such diverse paths.” Psychology
lacks a methodology–this is the author’s conclusion, and the main
thing is that we cannot create a methodology now. We cannot say that general
psychology has already fulfilled its duties as a branch of methodology. On the
contrary, wherever you look, imperfection, uncertainty, doubt, contradiction
reign. We can only talk of the problems of general psychology and not even of
that, but of an introduction to the problems of general psychology [ibid., p.
5]. Binswanger sees in psychologists a “courage and will toward (the creation
of a new) psychology.” In order to accomplish this they must break with
the prejudices of centuries, and this shows one thing: that to this day, the
general psychology has not been created. We must not ask, with Bergson, what
would have happened if Kepler, Galileo,and Newton had been psychologists, but
what can still happen despite the fact that they were mathematicians [ibid.,
Thus, it may seem that the chaos in psychology is entirely natural and that
the meaning of the crisis which psychology became aware of is as follows: there
aist many psychologies which have the tendency to create a single psychology
by developing a general psychology. For the latter purpose it is not enough
to have a Galileo, i.e., a genius who would create the foundations of the science.
This is the general opinion of European methodology as it had evolved toward
the end of the nineteenth century. Some, mainly French, authors hold this opinion
even today. In Russia, Vaguer (1923)–almost the only psychologist who has
dealt with methodological questions–has always defended it. He expresses
the same opinion on the occasion of his analysis of the Annés Psychologiques,
i.e., a synopsis of the international literature. This is his conclusion: thus,
we have quite a number of psychological schools, but not a unified psychology
as an independent area of psychology [sic]. From the fact that it doesn’t
exist does not follow that it cannot exist (ibid.). The answer to the question
where and how it may be found can only be given by the history of science.
This is how biology developed. In the seventeenth century two naturalists lay
the foundation for two areas of zoology: Buffon for the description of animals
and their way of life, and Linné for their classification. Gradually,
both sections engendered a number of new problems, morphology appeared, anatomy,
etc. The investigations were isolated from each other and represented as it
were different sciences, which were in no way connected but for the fact that
they both studied animals. The different sciences were at enmity, attempted
to occupy the prevailing position as the mutual contacts increased and they
could not remain apart. The brilliant Lamarck succeeded in integrating the uncoordinated
pieces of knowledge into one book, which he called “Philosophy of Zoology.”
He united his investigations with those of others, Buffon and Linné included,
summarized the results, harmonized them with each other, and created the area
of science which ‘freviranus called general biology. A single and abstract
science was created from the uncoordinated disciplines, which, since the works
of Darwin, could stand on its own feet. It is the opinion of Vagner that what
was done with the disciplines of biology before their combination into a general
biology or abstract zoology at the beginning of the nineteenth century is now
taking place in the field of psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century.
This belated synthesis in the form of a general psychology must repeat Lamarck’s
synthesis, i.e., it must be based on an analogous principle. Vaguer sees more
than a simple analogy in this. For him psychology must traverse not a similai
but the same path. Biopsychology is part of biology. It is an abstraction of
the concrete schools or their synthesis, the achievements of all of these schools
form its content. It cannot have, and neither has general biology, its own special
method of investigation. Each time it makes use of the method of a science that
is its composite part. It takes account of the achievements, verifying them
from the point of view of evolutionwy theoty and indicating their corresponding
places in the general system (Vaguer, 1923). This is the expression of a more
or less general opinion.
Some details in Vaguer call forth doubt. In his understanding, general psychology (1) now forms a part of biology, is based upon the theory of evolution (its basis) etc. Consequently, it is in no need of its own Lamarck and Darwin, or their discoveries, and can realize its synthesis on the basis of already present principles; (2) now still must develop in the same way general biology developed, which is not included in biology as its part, but exists side by side with it. Only in this way can we understand the analogy, which is possible between two similar independent wholes, but not between the fate of a whole (biology) and its part (psychology).
Vagner’s (ibid., p. 53) statement that biopsychology provides “exactly
what Marx requires from psychology” causes another embarrassment. In general
it can be said that Vagner’s formal analysis is, evidently, as irreproachably
correct as his attempt to solve the essence of the problem, and to outline the
content of general psychology is methodologically untenable, even simply underdeveloped
(part of biology, Marx). But the latter does not interest us now. Let us turn
to the formal analysis. Is it correct that the psychology of our days is going
through the same crisis as biology before Lamarck and is heading for the same
To put it this way is to keep silent about the most important and decisive aspect of the crisis and to present the whole picture in a false light. Whether psychology is beading for agreement or rupture, whether a general psychology will develop from the combination or separation of the psychological disciplines, depends on what these disciplines bring with them–parts of the future whole, like systematics, morphology and anatomy, or mutually exclusive principles of knowledge. It also depends on what is the nature of the hostility between the disciplines–whether the contradictions which divide psychology are soluble, or whether they are irreconcilable. And it is precisely this analysis of the specific conditions under which psychology proceeds to the creation of a general science that we do not find in Vagner, Lange and the others. Meanwhile, European methodology has already reached a much higher degree of understanding of the crisis and has shown which and how many psychologies exist and what are the possible outcomes. But before we turn to this point we must first quit radically with the misunderstanding that psychology is following the path biology already took and in the end will simply be attached to it as its part. To think about it in this way is to fail to see that sociology edged its way between the biology of man and animals and tore psychology into two parts (which led Kant to divide it over two areas). We must develop the theory of the crisis in such a way as to be able to answer this question.